Bad words

From The New Criterion

Jesse Sheidlower’s piece ran in The New York Times on the last day of March, so you knew it couldn’t be an April Fool’s joke. Three years ago, the Times Magazine ran a similar one by Jenny Diski, who sought out the Gray Lady as the most appropriate venue for a plea on behalf of greater freedom to use a common vulgarism for the female pudenda. Needless to say, the word did not appear in her article. At least Mr Sheidlower, President of the American Dialect Society and, until 2005, the Principal North American Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was so far emancipated from propriety that the title of his book, The F-Word, could be mentioned in his capsule bio. Ms Diski had been reduced to inserting in the place of the word she couldn’t use “the word I can’t use” in brackets. It was the Times against the Times and a flagrant a violation of the rule in the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (under “Obscenity, Vulgarity, Profanity”) which reads: “Discussion about an expletive does not end with the decision against using it. The Times also forgoes offensive or coy hints. An article should not seem to be saying, ‘Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me.’”

Now Mr Sheidlower was returning to the offensive offensive in the pages of the same paper by saying explicitly that he wants to use the word or words (he has lots of them in mind) but they won’t let him.

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

“Clear” forsooth! But clarity eludes him in other ways as well. There is a fusion of two separate arguments here. One is the typical modern lexicographer’s appeal to the oxymoronic authority of current usage with the jargon term “comfort level.” He means that what was formerly offensive hardly seems so anymore to lots of people. But the underlying argument is the morally nihilistic one that the more people use such words the more it must be right for us (and The New York Times) to use them too. At the same time, he is engaging in quasi-moral reasoning based on the idea of “certain words” which “are necessary to the understanding of a story.” In all the examples he provides of circumlocutory ingenuity (or lack of it) by the Times or other papers in reporting on newsmakers who use vulgar, obscene, profane or offensive language, the only one involving “understanding” is one in which the author declined to describe a sexual practice at all, though she could have done so in circumlocutory terms. Otherwise every case boils down to some equivalent of “an expletive was used.” What incremental understanding would result from the expletive’s actually being named seems to me infinitesimal in comparison to the immense potential for coarsening of our public discourse.

But then I suppose the champion of current usage would only point out, quite rightly, that coarse is the way things are going these days — and in the process it’s becoming less coarse because it’s becoming more familiar. It’s the next step in this dreary process of reasoning, that therefore the Times must keep up with the times, that makes no sense to me. Mr Sheidlower appears to consider it axiomatic that anything which sounds as if it had been written decades ago amounts to a scandal against the writer without regard to the question of whether the writing is otherwise good or bad. But what else can you expect from those who frown upon any standard but that of current usage? Clearly there is a faction within the Times editorial offices which is, like him, impatient to be off with the old rules about linguistic propriety and whose confidence of ultimate success must be based upon a similar if non-explicit defeat of old-fashioned ideas about political impartiality or what constitutes “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” in the paper’s world-famous slogan.

The words were first used by Adolph S. Ochs in 1897 as part of an effort to distinguish his newly-acquired paper from the so-called “yellow press” of Hearst and Pulitzer. Much later the phrase was adapted for the website as “All the News That’s Fit to Click,” but I can’t find it anymore since the site’s awful redesign that came in at the beginning of the year — presumably because, in spite of the substitution of “click,” it sounds as if the words were written decades ago. The very idea of propriety or decorum, of that which is “fit,” is itself outmoded, except as it applies to ethnic or racial sensitivities — to which in recent years have been added the rights of women, homosexuals and certain non-Christian religious groups to an outraged sense of amour propre when they feel they have not been treated with sufficient respect.

The original appeal of Ochs’s slogan was apparent when, shortly after its introduction, the paper staged a contest to replace it and, according to W. Joseph Campbell of American University, was inundated with suggestions such as “Always Decent, Never Dull,” and “A Decent Newspaper for Decent People.” You could say, of course, that the wish for decency is still strong but that ideas of what is decent and what is not have changed. Rather than matters predominantly sexual and scatological these ideas are now racial and political, though that is a change in more than just the meaning of the word. It describes a whole different world-view. In practice, “all the news that’s fit to print” became all the news that fits our politics and then just our politics, whether news or not. Ultimately, the contest judges decided — I guess that’s the kind of thing you could do back in 1897 — that Ochs had got it right to begin with. But the slogan deemed to have won the contest and, with it, the then-considerable sum of $100 was submitted by D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut, and read: “All the World’s News, but not a School for Scandal.”

Obviously, that one could not have lasted for over a century on the front page since the Times, like other papers, is now virtually all scandal all the time. Avoiding just that sad state of affairs was once what constituted the other kind of propriety, not of language but of the news itself. I can be as frank about my own fogeyish tendencies in longing for a return to old-fashioned ideas of decency as I can about the unlikelihood that any such thing will ever happen — though I remain entirely unpersuaded that such tendencies are incompatible with a clear and pleasing style of writing. But I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t see the attraction of taking up an intellectual and moral position above that of the scandal-monger. Perhaps there is a connection between the thrill people think they are being kept from by the strictures of sexual decorum and that to be had from the freedom to delve at will into other people’s disreputable secrets, and we can hardly imagine ourselves without either sort of freedom anymore, no matter what political unfreedoms we have to pay for them with.

Yet most of what passes for scandal these days doesn’t even rise (or sink) to the level of gratifying a prurient curiosity. Instead, it is Representative Paul Ryan talking about the social pathologies of the “inner cities,” thought (or at least said) by some to be racially offensive, or the Tory party chairman in Britain saying that “working people” ought to be free to spend their money on “beer and bingo” — which, because he used the pronoun “they,” was deemed to have been a patronizing exercise in the “stereotyping” of those who might once have been described without scandal as “the lower orders.” As if anyone would have believed him if he had implied that he spent his own money on beer and bingo. The scandal of the “gaffe” consists in the presumption that it must amount to a window into the secret soul of those whom we are already too eager to believe are motivated in all they do by race or class hatred. But what if this is not the case? Once we have decided to trust our own prejudices rather than our public men and women, we are likely to find that trust of any kind is no longer possible.

I wonder what old Adolph would have made of the “fitness” or otherwise of the story that dominated the media environment for weeks during March and April, that of the missing airliner MH 370. Not much, I suspect. Not only wasn’t the story fit to print, it wasn’t even news after the early reports of the plane’s disappearance, though of course that didn’t stop it from dominating the news at a time when the Russian invasion of Crimea or the unfolding drama of Obamacare’s introduction might have been thought to be more compelling stories. With the Malaysian airliner, however, the media not only got a keen speculative interest in what happened to the plane and its passengers and crew to fill up their news hole, but they also got great think pieces about why we are so interested in it as to engage in all this speculation about what cannot be known. An early favorite: “in the internet age, we can’t bear not to know.” And so, presumably, we pretend we do know. For Stephanie Merritt of The Observer, on the other hand, the disappearance constituted a personal setback after years of working on her fear of flying.

As Michael Wolff of The Guardian put it, the outpouring of commentary in the absence of any facts constituted “anti-journalism” in which “everyone is entitled to his or her own their own theory” [sic] in a kind of democratic melée. “Journalism exists to provide information. But what’s really compelling,” he wrote, “is a lack of information — or what is more particularly being called ‘an absence of empirical data.’”

This may be the first wholly data-driven story. There are no first-hand facts. There are only secondary data implications. And so far it has demonstrated not the strength of data — that new religion — but its weakness. “What investigators are left with is an hourly electronic ‘handshake’ or digital communication, between the airplane and a satellite orbiting 22,250 miles above the Indian Ocean,” says the [New York] Times with some poetry. “But the handshake is mostly devoid of data, and cannot be used to pinpoint the plane’s last known location. It is the electronic equivalent of catching someone’s eye in the crowd.” The data, in other words, merely reinforces the existential. Indeed, the most telling data point may be that the plane so artfully slipped through the data filters leaving so few data points. But the plane is somewhere — that’s the only certain data point.

There’s another aspect to this non-story, however, which is that those who are most assiduously reporting it — like CNN, for which it was said to have constituted a brief ratings bonanza — don’t even know it’s a non-story. Here’s Paul Farhi in The Washington Post: Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, said in an interview that the network was primed to cover the missing-jet story before the network calculated the ratings payoff. “You just know there’s a big story there,” he said. “This happens to be among the most compelling mysteries we’ve ever seen. At the same time, it touches so many areas that are important to American viewers — national security, potential terrorism, an American-made jetliner, a U.S. Navy search. There’s a technology story there and a dramatic human story involving 239 families. The public wants to know if their planes are safe.”

But if the “big story” is unknown, it isn’t a story but a fantasy, a speculation. Not that the Post itself was above such speculations, as it put science correspondent Joel Achenbach on the case to assess the various theories about the plane’s disappearance — among them what is doubtless the most gratifying to the conspiracy theorists being catered to by such non-reporting, namely that someone in power knows what happened to MH370 and isn’t telling:

Authorities in charge of the investigation (wrote Mr Achenbach) may know much more than they have revealed. They may have decided to withhold information in order to protect investigatory assets (such as satellite capabilities), to cover up a mistake or national security inadequacy (such as a lack of good radar coverage), or to avoid tipping off persons of interest. “We’re dealing with military organizations, and they don’t want to tell you, and especially they don’t want to tell you if it looks like they really screwed up,” [Hans] Weber said. “The military doesn’t want to look bad in their own country. I think there is a lot of incentive for the militaries there to not come clean.”

Ah! So there’s the news angle. We knew all along that those guys were corrupt and hiding their corruption from us under a mask of privacy to which they are no more entitled than the bereaved families of the Malaysian airliner victims. In that missing airplane, the perfect absence of any factual details is thus the blank screen on which we can see our own ideas reflected back at us, gratifying us in its confirmation of anything we may have been confident about knowing all along.

And that, I think, is why we are all more or less eager to drop the whole idea of news “fit to print.” Decorum of language or subject matter, though hypocritical by our lights, was once the means of establishing trust between reader and writer, and between writer and subject. That trust also depended on preserving the boundaries between public and private and news and opinion. As all those boundaries have fallen away so has the need for trust — or even any sense of why trust might be a desirable thing to have at the foundation of civil society in a democracy. Privacy itself is now well on its way to becoming an offense against the new political order, as Mr Brendan Eich of Mozilla discovered when he donated $1000 to the campaign for proposition 8 in California. Such thought crime and the media “School for Scandal” which relentlessly pursues it must seem to us preferable because they license our hatred for our political enemies in a world where their good fortune must equal our bad and vice versa. This is the world in which increasingly, faut de mieux, our politics is conducted. I suppose it is understandable, therefore, if we feel the need to ventilate such hatreds with obscene language in the pages of our newspaper of record

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